Wednesday, December 29, 2010

At the Sunset of Time

What would it be like to watch the the end of the society you know? To watch free thinking, philosophy and scientific exploration driven into the shadows as fake populist dogma turns regular people into mobs of violent know-nothings? No, it's not the Teabagger Story, it's a wonderful movie I just watched called "Agora." Directed by Spanish filmmaker Alejandro Amenábar and starring Rachel Weisz, Agora tells the story of the philosopher Hypatia in late Roman-empire Egypt. While apparently a big hit in Europe, the film received limited distribution in the U.S. and is just recently out on DVD.

Hypatia was the daughter of a noted Pagan philosopher and mathematician in the Hellenic tradition and became a noted figure in her own right. Rome had officially converted to Christianity in the fourth century, and by the time the movie is set in the early fifth century, Christianity is sweeping Alexandria and threatening the cultural balance in a cosmpolitan city where Pagans, Jews and Christians seem to exist in relative harmony. The Pagans guard the legacy of science and learning in their library where the rescued scrolls from the earlier classical library of Alexandria have been preserved. Christians sweep to power and their intolerance soon victimizes the Pagans and Jews. Since it's historical fact, it's not ruining the movie to note that it ends with Hypatia being accused of being a witch and being murdered by a Christian mob.

I found the movie quite moving. Where it could easily have been an average sword-and-sandal epic, it's actually quite brave in its narrative and sensibility, and quite spiritual in its contemplation of someone on the verge of cosmic understanding at the same time she sees the world around her descend into darkness. Rachel Weisz as Hypatia is given an unusual role: the brainy, intellectual heroine of the film, a woman who rejects sensual physicality in favor of more heady pursuits. The Pagans are depicted somewhat sympathetically, albeit as doomed effete slave-owners failing to keep up with the times. The film reserves its real venom for its portrayal of the dark-age Christians, suggesting them to be an Al-Qaeda-like band of unreasonable zealots hypnotized by bad thinking, and unhindered by doubt or self-exploration.

I'm fascinated that a movie was made this way. The Christians are clad in black, and their visual heaviness contrasts with the light and airy scenes of Pagan culture and society. They are shown to be unspeakably brutal in their attacks on the Pagans and their library, and later in a pogrom against the Jews of Alexandria. They call the scrolls in the library "Pagan filth" and considerable time is devoted to showing their disdain for any knowledge outside the word of God revealed in the Bible. I can't imagine a film like this being made in the United States.

The film's antihero is Davus, the slave -- later freed slave -- of Hypatia, whose bonds draw him to the social justice and charity promised by the Christians, but who ends up becoming a fanatical killer. Which, with no particular animus to my Christian friends, pretty much sums up the tragedy that religion seems to often bring upon itself when it overly dominates the public square (literally what "Agora" means). While this allegorical film casts its harshest eye on ancient Christianity, I do like to point out that Tibet, home to the peace-loving altruism of Buddhism, was home to a particularly aggressive military/feudal social structure replete with slavery abolished only midway through the last century. I'm equally certain the story of medieval Nigeria, where my Yoruba/Santeria tradition is rooted, is an unlovely tale of feudalism and slave trading.

In the end one must assume that director Amenábar is defending all manner of secularism against religious dogma; and that his allegorical portrayal of the Roman Empire on the cusp of the dark ages is meant to be a warning for our own times. The spiritual/religious person in me can only sharply agree. For if spirituality can unlock the world's most intimate secrets and bring comfort, fulfillment and peace to individuals and communities, history teaches us that it must remain separated from governance.


  1. I'm familiar with Hypatia's story and I want to see this film. As one of your Christian friends I do have to jump in with something. I wasn't in Alexandria so I don't know for sure, but Roman Paganism was not kind, open minded or nature loving. I think Alexandria's brutal Christian mobs had more in common with Paris's brutal mobs during the French Revolution than with the mobs that Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin are threatening to unleash. I think many of the violent and intolerant Christians imagined, falsely, that they had been empowered by Rome's decision to make Christianity the state religion. I think it was Reinhold Niebhur who said "Religion is very good in the hands of good people and very bad in the hands of bad people."
    Still trying to take in the history of Christianity and relate it to Christ's ministry. I haven't gotten very far.

  2. "but Roman Paganism was not kind, open minded or nature loving"

    LOL. I'm sure that's an understatement! Having watched the long documentary "making of" since writing the review, it's clear the director didn't mean to glorify Paganism -- he clearly implies that having slaves was their great moral blindspot -- but to defend secularism. A cursory reading of a few sources on the internet makes it clear that Hypatia's religious beliefs were up for debate; that mostly her interest was science and knowledge.

    Interestingly enough the documentary onthe DVD reveals that one of the Christian fanatics in the film was played by a very devout Palestinian Christian who embraced some of the ambiguity of his character. And the costume designer explicitly researched Taliban fashion for the Christian mobs.

    And if overthrowing the French royalty was a laudable plebian cause, there's something about the unthinking certainty of all mobs that's troubling, no?

    I like your Niebuhr quote.

  3. I got a chance to see Agora. Wow. A great film that asks more questions than it answers. Here's a question for you. Haven't you ever wanted to smash all of their idols? Haven't you ever despised the long thoughtful moments that make up the life of Hypatia, knowing that every leisurely moment was purchased with years of suffering by a slave? Haven't you ever been willing to see the whole body of their knowledge smashed and burned, knowing that their universities are monuments to oppression and cruelty?
    I know I've felt that way more than a few times. What would it look like if I was allowed to act on my anger? Could I stop myself at some decent moment and only destroy what needs to be destroyed?
    I know that I pray in a church that was built by former Confederate generals who were hoping to recreate the decadent morality of the southern elite in a California valley. I know that the head of my church, The Archbishop Of Canterbury, presides over the church from Lambeth Palace, a palace built with profits made in the gigantic slave plantations of the Caribbean. I know that millions of young women were worked to early deaths to pay for that splendid building.
    How much of this am I willing to see destroyed? If I was given free rein to destroy all that I despise what would prevent me from becoming a monster?
    I suppose the good news is that I am not likely to have to answer those questions in real life. I lead a quiet, pleasant life paid for, in part, by the suffering of countless others.
    I remember when we were young radicals, people from other tendencies would criticize us for refusing to compromise with reformists and labor bureaucrats. We were afraid to dirty our hands is what they said. Is that idealistic avoidance nothing more than privilege? What if saving your soul is the best you can hope for; knowing that you've betrayed your ideals in the endless battles of life?
    Damn, too much to think about. I've got errands to run.

  4. Oh I'm so glad you saw it. I watched it again (with the commentary) and I was struck by how carefully the filmmaker actually ascribes atrocities to all three groups portrayed in the film: somehow it was actually me noticing the Christian atrocities the most. So thanks for challenging me on that before.

    As to the the rest of what you're saying, yes, I guess I remember that kind of rage. It seems very distant and youthful to me. I will admit to secretly admiring the Khmer Rouge in 1975 when all we knew was that they were emptying out Cambodia's cities and restarting society afresh from scratch in the countryside. I was 16...isn't that how child soldiers are made?

  5. Here from Jon's blog, via BFP's blog...

    Your comments are so much more insightful than mine, so mine is just a little sprinkle.

    But after watching the trailer Jon posted, it looks kind of like the commander of the invaders is cast and/or made up to appear very "Middle Eastern" compared to the white leaders on the defense side that I can see.

    I know Christianity started in the Middle East, and Jesus probably too pasty-pale, etc. etc. etc. So that's not necessarily wrong. But couldn't a few more of the leading defenders have looked tan themselves? They did live in Egypt.

  6. Hey Katie. Welcome. That's a fair criticism... the Pagans in the film are definitely depicted as the whitest of the three groups.